My Lords, I can certainly assure the noble Earl that we are looking at that point. I know that Ministers now closely scrutinise individual proposals to ensure that we do not over-implement. Occasionally it may seem that over-implementation is taking place. However, when one examines the issues in more detail, that view is not necessarily accurate. For instance, I have been assured that the poultry hygiene regulations are essential. We must take cognisance of the fact that we could get into very great difficulties with the EU on this matter. The EU in turn could then create problems in terms of payment of subsidies should we not implement appropriately in this area. However, I have listened carefully to the words of the noble Earl. The issue of ducklings by post is one that I shall look at as soon as I return to my office. I regret that I cannot respond directly on that point today.
Several noble Lords raised the matter of hill farming. That sector has been under great pressure. We have provided more support there. An extra £60 million has been allocated to hill livestock compensatory allowances for 1999 and 2000. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, asked about agri-monetary compensation. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, also raised the issue, although I may be incorrect on that. The Government have made available some £264 million of agri-monetary compensation to ensure that farmers do indeed have access to a level playing field and are not unnecessarily disadvantaged by the strength of the pound. It is an unpalatable fact that the previous government chose not even to apply for any of the £153 million of compensation that was made available in January and March 1997.
The issue of easing the cost of regulation was raised by several noble Lords. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred to it in detail. For at least the duration of the current comprehensive spending review, the Government are committed to paying for cattle passports, which amounts to £22 million per annum. Furthermore, they are committed to meeting the cost of specified risk materials inspections, which amounts to another £18 million per annum. Those are necessary safeguards in the wake of BSE. Equally, today my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced another easing of the cost of regulation on the industry. Concerns have been expressed by many noble Lords about the cost of the Meat Hygiene Service. Charges will be frozen for this year at a cost of £7 million, and we have pledged that charges for next year will not rise above the rate of inflation. I hope that that will be welcomed by noble Lords.
A new marketing drive is to be established by MAFF and the Meat and Livestock Commission to explore the scope for more activity on beef export promotion, using a proportion of the £6 million contained in the recent aid packages. It is hoped that that will give some help to the beef industry which, as has been pointed out many times today, has been so gravely injured by the BSE crisis.
Many who have spoken in the debate today pointed out that agriculture is not the only source of employment in the countryside but equally that it is central to achieving the wider economic, social and environmental objectives for rural areas, even though agriculture as a source of employment has declined as a proportion of the whole workforce in many areas. As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, illustrated, these days agriculture is seldom the single source of income for farming families. I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that the Government are not abandoning farmers to the market without concern for them. Our long-term policy for agriculture is to secure a more competitive and sustainable industry with a stronger market orientation. Several speakers have welcomed that. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, spoke wisely on these issues in a very thoughtful speech. I agree with the noble Earl on the importance of consumer understanding and information, so that issues such as differing welfare regimes in different countries are understood. Those who, as one set of citizens, want to see higher animal welfare standards should also recognise the implications that that has for them as consumers. We have nothing to fear in making these matters clear in the marketing of British produce.
Stronger market orientation was our philosophy in pressing for a radical reform of the CAP. Although the outcome of the Agenda 2000 negotiations did not go as far as we should have liked, it represented an important step in moving the common agricultural policy in the right direction, as was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, and others. That change also gave us the opportunity provided by the Rural Development Regulation. For the first time, it provides a chance for the long-term redirection of agricultural support so as to encourage sustainable and enterprising rural economies and communities.
The regulation recognises the wider contribution that farmers make to rural areas and the need for farmers to diversify their businesses as they adapt to changing market conditions. I believe that that was the context in which my noble friend Lord Haskel referred to opportunities. Certainly, those opportunities are being grasped by many farmers. That is not to suggest that there are not mainstream and deep-rooted problems for farmers, but there are ways in which value can be added. The regulation also recognises the need to encourage enterprise through the rural economy, in part at least to enable it to adjust to the decline in the direct contribution made by agriculture. The points relating to diversification and support for rural industries have been made.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, sought a comment on renewable energy from crops and wastes. We are considering carefully, in the context of the Rural Development Regulation, possible support for energy crops. We believe that value for money from short rotation coppice is better than that from bio-diesel. I suspect that the noble Lord may not agree, but that is our view. We are considering whether we can increase R&D funding in that area.
In responding to the noble Lord, perhaps I may comment on the trials of GM crops. It is in the interest of everyone, as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said in his opening remarks, that we have the information from real farm-scale evaluations as regards the implications for the environment--not least to answer the questions of those who have the gravest doubts about the introduction of GM crops. We are committed to a rigorous assessment of the safety of the trial release of GM crops in the environment. Equally, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, that we are committed to openness. We do not want it to be done by stealth. That would not be in anyone's interest. But given that attitude, there must be responsibility on the part of those who seek to undermine the only method of obtaining the information on which judgments for the future can be based.
A number of speakers mentioned the rural White Paper. More can, and should, be done to ensure an integrated and effective approach to rural areas. That is why we are examining the ways in which we can serve and enhance the countryside as a resource and amenity for all through the rural White Paper which is to be published next year. I assure noble Lords that the White Paper will adopt a holistic approach in exploring how a wide range of policies, encompassing the work of many government departments, agencies and local authorities, can support rural communities.
The rural White Paper will consider the impact of policies on many of the areas raised by noble Lords during the debate; for example, crime and policing, about which the noble Earl, Lord Peel, spoke; education, referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham; transport; and housing. It will explore how those issues fit together. The White Paper will discuss how to foster sustainable communities and will examine how our development and regeneration policies will assist deprived rural communities. My noble friend Lord Haskel was right to point out the evidence regarding rural deprivation and the possibility of severe social isolation and exclusion within rural areas, and how we can give all rural people the opportunity to play a full part in the economic vitality and sustainable development of our society.
I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that it will be in that context that the issues concerning rural post offices, to which we have given some scope for more commercial freedom, and small business services will be approached.
Several noble Lords asked about the possibility of EU funds for rural development measures, particularly for over-subscribed agri-environmental schemes. That forms part of the consultation that has been taking place on the Rural Development Regulation. We have consulted, for example, on such issues as an early retirement scheme; help for young farmers; and, above all, the principle of modulation referred to by the right reverend Prelate. I am afraid that I cannot give him the answers as regards the decisions on match funding and modulation, which have still to be made; but I can tell him that it will not be long before that information is available. There has been concern about the low level of historical funding that we inherited; it does not give us a strong base from which to work. We shall be pressing within Europe to ensure that the overall level of funding is examined for the next round.
I am conscious of the time, so perhaps I may deal briefly with points made by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, in regard to the countryside amenity and conservation Bill, the widening of access to the countryside and ways in which we can promote people's enjoyment of it while recognising the need to preserve the livelihoods of those who work there as well as wildlife and the environment itself.
Fifty years after the landmark National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, we shall be bringing forward new countryside legislation early next year. The Bill will fulfil two important manifesto commitments: to strengthen the protection of wildlife, and to give people greater access to the countryside. It will demonstrate our determination both to secure effective protection of our finest habitats and species and to ensure that more people have the opportunity to enjoy our wonderful natural heritage--and, as several noble Lords suggested was important for those who live in towns, to understand the countryside better.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, asked whether we would consider the views of the CLA and others in the passage of the Bill. We have held extensive consultation with interested organisations over the past two years. Equally, during the parliamentary stages of that Bill, especially in your Lordships' House, we shall consider carefully the views expressed by the CLA and others.
Funding for rural services was raised by several noble Lords. The issues of scarcity and support for services through local authority grant systems are well recognised. They will be an underlying theme in consideration of rural policies. Because of the need for "joined-up government", for ensuring that we make all the departments involved play their part, it has been announced that there will be a cross-cutting rural review in the context of the next spending review which I hope will be helpful.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, asked specifically about how much more green belt would be destroyed by our Government. I have to say: a great deal less than was destroyed by his. In their last year of office, the Conservative government took 1,200 hectares out of the green belt. Since May 1997, there has been a net gain of almost 30,000 hectares. I hope that the noble Earl will find that reassuring.
On the issue of fox hunting raised by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others, I was glad that in today's debate the impression was not given, as sometimes happens, that it is the predominant or only issue of concern in the countryside. Nevertheless, it is right that the facts about hunting should be properly assessed and balanced in a dispassionate way, before any legislation is considered. The noble Lord, Lord Burns, is in the Chamber; he has an onerous task.